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Annotating Text using Text Symbols

The human brain has 86 billion neurons, and each of these neurons forms a network, all passing notes, and signals, called synapses. Like any muscle, these network pathways are only strengthened the more they’re used. Annotating text forges network pathways in the brain to store and retrieve information. The stronger the pathways, the stronger the memory, and the easier it is to make connections. 

Here’s a lesson plan to teach students how to annotate text.

Activity & Lesson Opener: Movie Magic

Ease into the lesson by opening the classroom with a conversation. Ask students what their favorite movies are. Have them rattle off a few and see if you notice any patterns.

Tell them that they are making connections all the time and that they’re annotating in their heads. The visual information is contextualized by evaluating what it is, why it’s been given, what it means, and where the concept is going.

Lesson Opener: Annotating Is Doodles

Place a couple of examples of completed annotations on the board. Explain that the annotations might look like Egyptian hieroglyphics at first glance, and in a way, they are. Explain that annotation is a code unique to you.

Annotating is a method of thoughtful or active reading. It helps the reader read! Annotation creates a visual map of ah-hah moments, much like the synapses of our brains.

Annotation is also time-saving, so students don’t have to reread the text later. Annotating allows students to skim; the notes they jot down will help them remember the thoughts, emotions, and connections they originally had while reading.

Lesson: The Doodles

Teach the following types of annotating tools:

Underlining and Highlighting

Underlining is one of the most commonly used methods of annotation. But this practice can get lost in translation. Emphasize the importance of making those connections, of thinking critically about the text, rather than just sorting what sounds important and what’s irrelevant. 

Only underline or highlight after having reached the end of a paragraph. Then go back and skim for the phrase that best summarizes the main concept.

Color Coding

Color coding is the twin sister of underlining and highlighting. By color coding underlines or highlights, each color can have a specific meaning. 

E.g., students can use blue for dialogue, green for setting, underlining for main ideas, and highlighting for important phrases or quotes.


Circling is a fun, visual way to identify an unknown word or even a specific word that stood out. And if students are really good, they can use circling to catch proofreading mistakes like grammar and spelling.


Slash marks or hashes can connect two underlined sentences, typically on the same page. This method is used in higher education and more advanced readers.

Margin Notes

Writing in the margins is one of the most useful annotation methods available. Students can jot down notes, a memory that surfaced, a feeling, or a callback to a previous section or scene.

If writing in the margins isn’t an option, or students want to keep their book scribble-free, sticky notes are an equal option. This mainly applies to a library or school-owned book since we don’t want to encourage defacing property.

Activity: Annotating Text Using Text Symbols

For another activity, project a passage onto the board, give students a minute to read, then ask them to raise their hands if they want to come up and annotate. But they can only annotate using symbols found on their phone’s keyboard.

This exercise isn’t about drawing skills or participation. It’s about forging a connection for students to think of annotating as a fun way to memorialize information.

Have students devise an annotation key specific to their class. Examples include:

  • A magnifying glass = foreshadowing
  • Question marks = research to do later
  • Heart eyes = interesting passages

Prompt deeper thinking by asking questions such as:

  • How can the section contribute to the document as a whole?
  • What is the significance of the section or scene? Why would the author include this?
  • Why does a sentence work, or why doesn’t it?

Follow-Up: Encourage, Experiment, & Annotate

Follow up the activity by including a homework assignment for students to try their hand at annotating and demonstrate their ability. You can use this as a benchmark to track comprehension of annotating.

Annotating provides the tools to build bridges between ideas and retain information. There isn’t one way to annotate. Encourage students to experiment with their own style and watch how their comprehension and enjoyment of reading increase.

Written by Morgan Andrus
Education World Contributor
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